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George Costanza Really Knew How to Sell!

If you’re of similar vintage to me (40-something), there’s a decent chance you’ve seen every single Seinfeld episode. Most of the time, the chubby, balding, quirky character named George Costanza was far more likely to embarrass himself than demonstrate anything close to sales acumen. There was, however, one episode when George turned the tables on his luck, and in the process, embodied the qualities of an authentic and brilliant salesperson.

The episode is called “The Opposite” for the simple reason that George, fed up with the fact that his life had become the exact opposite of what he had intended it to be, decided that he would behave in the the exact opposite way of his first instincts. Jerry reasoned that if George’s every instinct was wrong, then the opposite must then be right. Fully bought in to this logic, George started by ordering a chicken salad sandwich instead of tuna on toast, and slowly his world began to change for the better. The momentum continues throughout the episode.

Similar to George Costanza, the instincts of most salespeople are flat wrong. In most situations, sales people would be well served to act in the exact opposite way of their first instincts. The primary reason this happens is because nearly every salesperson suffers from the same disease – inside-out thinking instead of outside-in thinking. Most people are so preoccupied with their own agenda they fail to realize that the only agenda worth pursuing is the client’s agenda. Here are three examples of how this manifests:

1) Talking vs Listening

Nobody wants to be sold anything. And yet, somehow our human condition prompts us to walk into a meeting determined to get to our pitch. Instead of droning on about features and benefits, we would all be better served to pitch absolutely nothing in the first client meeting.

People are far more likely to buy when they come to their own conclusions about how to solve their problems. A salesperson who shows up, not knowing their client from Adam, purporting to understand enough of the nuances in the clients business to recommend a solution in 15 minutes is not likely to be asked back.

Instead, consider viewing the first meeting as a chance to better understand the client’s situation – the challenges and opportunities they face.  Pitch nothing….nothing at all. And end the meeting with a comment such as “Thanks kindly for being so candid with me today. I have an idea forming and given my rather limited intellect, it may take a little time to fully form. Is there a chance we could book a follow up meeting to explore this a little further?”

Chances are you’re getting that second meeting. In no small part, it’s because you’ve just done the exact opposite of what the client was expecting you to do. They were expecting to be pitched. And it’s a welcome breath of fresh air for a salesperson to take a personal interest in their business before getting to their own agenda.

Now, in that second meeting, as long as you truly understand the client’s situation…pitch away!

2) Trashing the Competition Versus Complimenting the Competition

Here’s the thing. We all want to sell our solutions over the competition. That instinct isn’t wrong. It’s necessary for survival as salespeople. That said, our natural instinct to trash the competition has the exact opposite effect we wish for. Think about how tiresome it becomes to you when you’ve had to endure a salesperson putting down competitive products or services. It’s a complete eye-roller. And so incredibly predictable!

Instead, try to genuinely compliment your competitor in one aspect or another. It doesn’t mean you have to sell them over your own products. It simply means you understand the competition and you’re willing to admit that you’re not the only game in town. You’re not going to upset the apple cart by admitting a competitive solution is compelling in some small way.

What you will find is that the trust level immediately increases as you take some of the initial skepticism away. Sometimes you can visibly see the client’s shoulders drop as they become disarmed. And once again, it has everything to do with the fact but they would never expect you to do this. The opposite has once again worked its magic

3) Deferring to the Client as Opposed to Challenging the Client

OK, so admittedly this one can become a little trickier but you’re still not mapping DNA. The reality is that agreeable and deferential salespeople are a dime a dozen in most industries. They rarely grab attention or remain memorable in the client’s mind for very long after a visit. This is exactly why you don’t want to mimic this type of salesperson. In order to distinguish yourself from the competition and become memorable, you simply must bring some level of expertise and insight into every meeting. And that means you may have to politely disagree with your client without saying “I disagree”.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting any salesperson should become petulant or argumentative. However, if you have insight to bring into a conversation, it makes a whole lot of sense to use it. Let’s face it, the client isn’t always right. In fact, given that the human condition tends to lead us toward comfort, it’s very likely that many of your clients suffer from status quo thinking. And status quo thinking gets you exactly that…the status quo.

The artful salesperson always knows how to respectfully challenge their clients in order to gently guide them away from status quo thinking. Not only is this the only way for you to dislodge a potentially harmful construct in the clients mind, it’s also the only way you will become memorable to them. And once again, with a tactful and incisive question or two, you will have differentiated yourself by doing exactly the opposite of what the client expects.

Costanza didn’t get many things right. To a religious viewer like myself, George’s penchant for consistently stepping in mud puddles gave the show both hilarious levity and relief- inducing comfort in our own missteps. But man, the dude sure had something in that opposite thing.

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Brent C. Wagner